The Nature and Scope of the Atonement in the Calvinist – Arminian Debates (Interview with Mark Jones)


In November I was invited to speak at Westminster Theological Seminary, and my dates in Philadelphia happened to coincide with Mark Jones’s presence on campus. Mark is a pastor in Vancouver, and the co-author of A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life, so I was eager to meet him.

We ended up meeting and dined one evening with Scott and Jared Oliphint. In a peacefully dim corner of a wonderful Philly restaurant (Iron Hill), a heady historical-theological conversation kicked up over the logical connections between definite atonement and substitutionary atonement. Jones highlighted various characters and debates over the years, weaving together a fascinating verbal history of how theologians wrestled with the nature and extent of Christ’s atonement. Later I asked him to develop this into a written interview, which he obliged.

Mark, I’ll start by asking you this: just how different are the Arminian and Reformed traditions?

The differences between Reformed (Calvinist) and Remonstrant (Arminian) traditions extend well beyond questions of “free will” or the extent of the atonement. Ranging from topics such as God’s attributes and knowledge to justification by faith alone to the nature — not just the extent — of the atonement, the Calvinists and Arminians crossed swords.

For example, Jacob Arminius eventually rejected the Reformed understanding of justification. The Arminians seemed to agree with the Reformed that the formal cause of justification was the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, but they openly disagreed on the material cause of justification. What is imputed, our act of faith (so, the Arminians) or the righteousness of Christ apprehended by faith (so, the Reformed)? In the Arminian scheme, imputation is an aestimatio — God regards our righteousness (i.e., faith) as something what it is not (i.e., perfect). In the Reformed scheme, however, imputation is always secundum veritatem — God regards Christ’s righteousness as our righteousness because it really is ours through faith and in union with Christ.

When did Remonstrant theologians begin to reject the Reformed view of the nature of the atonement?

On the question of the nature of the atonement, the Remonstrants adopted the objections raised by the Socinians against the Reformed view of the atonement. By the seventeenth century, the dominant Reformed view of the nature of the atonement was a refinement of Anselm’s concept of satisfaction. Satisfaction through punishment (satisfactio poenalis) incorporates the “both/and” approach to viewing Christ’s death, whereby he satisfies the Father’s justice by acting as our penal substitute. But the Remonstrants by and large rejected this view. They “denied that Christ suffered all the penalties that God had placed on sin, that he suffered eternal death, that his active obedience was vicarious . . . Even [Christ’s] suffering and death were not a full satisfaction for sins” (Bavinck, RD 3:349).

An example of this from the seventeenth century comes from the Remonstrant theologian, Philippus van Limborch. He rejected the Reformed view of the nature of Christ’s satisfaction. He does not merely differ on the extent of the atonement, but rather vigorously denies the Reformed position that Christ suffered all the punishments due to our sins, and thus satisfied divine justice (Bk. III, Sec. 4).

Grotius provides another example: he rejected the idea of Christ’s death as an “exact payment” (solutio eiusdem), which was affirmed by John Owen. Instead, Grotius affirmed the concept of “equivalent payment” (solutio tantidem). An “equivalent payment” does not free ipso facto but rather requires an act of acceptance on the part of God after payment. God and Christ are then free to set up conditions for salvation in whatever manner they see fit. So because of Christ’s “equivalent payment,” God causes forgiveness to be offered to all — as in “Christ died for you,” not the typical Reformed view that “God is able to save you.” The application of Christ’s death depends on the human act of faith, by one’s free will. In Arminius’s view, the remission Christ merited by his life and death was a potential remission, not an actual remission.

In essence, then, the Remonstrants basically denied the legal exactitude of penal substitution. As some scholars have noted, the Remonstrants believed that Christ’s death was for our sake and for our benefit, but not in our stead. Which is why the language of Dort (Second Head, sec. 2) shows that in Christ’s satisfaction for his people he “was made sin and became a curse on the cross for us and in our place.”

How did later Arminian theologians understand the connection — or dis-connection — between the nature of the atonement (penal substitution) and the extent of the atonement (definite atonement)?

Now, to the credit of many later Arminian theologians, they understood these points, and so rejected penal substitution. John Miley, a nineteenth-century Arminian theologian, understood that Reformed theology requires an atonement that “must be effectual in the salvation of all for whom it is made,” and thus it must be substitutionary (The Atonement in Christ, 22). J. Kenneth Grider, in the next century, notes: “A spillover from Calvinism into Arminianism has occurred in recent decades. Thus many Arminians whose theology is not very precise say that Christ paid the penalty for our sins. Yet such a view is foreign to Arminianism, which teaches instead that Christ suffered for us. Arminians teach what Christ did he did for every person; therefore what he did could not have been to pay the penalty, since no one would then ever go into eternal perdition” (“Arminianism” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 80). Grider makes the connection between the nature of the atonement and the extent of the atonement.

Another Arminian nineteenth-century theologian, William Burt Pope, contends: “Arminianism holds that the Sacrifice was offered for the whole world: it must therefore for that reason also renounce the commutative theory of exact and mutual compensation; since some may perish for whom Christ died, and He would be defrauded of His reward in them” (A Compendium of Christian Theology, 2:314). Pope understands that penal substitution, understood in terms of solutio eiusdem, cannot fit in the Arminian model, for it would necessarily mean either universalism or that Christ’s blood was spilled in vain for many.

The idea of connecting the nature of Christ’s death to the extent of his death requires further investigation. Is there are necessary connection between the two? I happen to think so. Thus if an avowed Arminian holds to “penal substitution” it must be said he isn’t a very good Arminian.

One curious fact is that Jacob Arminius seems to have himself held to penal substitution. How do you account for this?

On the question of the nature of the atonement, Arminius did in fact hold to substitutionary atonement, but in a way that was different from the Reformed, particularly on two points.

1) Arminius placed Christ’s universal atonement prior to the decree of election.

2) Arminius distinguishes between the sufficiency and principal efficiency of the atonement.

For him, the atonement was sufficiently made for all people indiscriminately, whereas the effective application of it pertains to the elect (i.e., those who by their own free assent accept the grace of Christ). This sounds like Reformed Hypothetical Universalism; but we should note that the effective application pertains to the elect because they embrace Christ by their own free will.

For Arminius, if we believe, Christ’s death has efficacy for us; but the Reformed held that we believe because Christ died for us. This, again, gets to the nature of the atonement. Even though Arminius holds to “substitution,” Christ’s death does not actually achieve redemption.

Reformed theologians like Owen and Turretin, for example, have contended that in dying for the elect, and them alone, Christ acquired faith for his people. Frequently, many today who hold to universal atonement and substitutionary atonement claim that sinners are not saved because they do not believe. But unbelief is the mother of all sins, and Christ died for that sin, too. Because he died for that sin, his death has a certain efficacy whereby those for whom he died must necessarily believe because his death and his intercession are two inseparable parts of his priesthood. Intercession always leads to belief (i.e., salvation). How can God refuse the requests of his exalted Son?

This is to say, if Christ died for everyone without exception, everyone would surely believe without exception because of the nature of Christ’s satisfaction.

Thank you, Mark, for parsing out this controversy.

Here’s the takeaway, in the words of Gary Williams: “penal substitution and definite atonement are two sides of the same coin.” And for more on the relationship between the two, see Williams’s contribution, “Penal Substitution and the Intent of the Atonement,” in the new book, From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective (Crossway; 2013), pages 461–82.